Peter’s Denial

  • Jon the freelance theologian delivered this community talk on Sunday March 13. The Biblical passages read out were Mark chapter 1, verse 16-20, John chapter 13, verses 18-38, Luke chapter 22, verses 31-34 and 54-62, Mark chapter 16, verses 1-7 and John chapter 21, verses 1-19.

    I’m always surprised – and a bit embarrassed – at how often I viewed famous Bible stories in black and white when I was growing up. I think partly that has to do with the way Bible stories are presented. They’re almost rushed over – it’s as if we can’t wait to make some sort of point about them and so we rush through in a ‘highlights’ kind of way and we’re asked to make snap judgements: Judas = bad because he betrayed Jesus, Thomas = bad because he doubted that Jesus rose from the dead, Peter = bad because he denied Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard and so on.

    As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve started seeing people far more sympathetically, especially these characters in the Bible. That’s partly because in my own life, perhaps, I’ve done the things that they’ve done and so I’m more forgiving of their very human failings and also because I’ve learned that human beings are very complex creatures and there’s no way we can know how we will act in any given situation until we are in that situation. In the church youth group I grew up in, we were once asked ‘If someone held a gun to your head and said they were going to shoot you unless you said you weren’t a Christian, what would you do?’ Of course, being good, eager (and young) Christians we all said that we wouldn’t deny our faith and if that meant we got shot then we’d go straight to heaven and stuff like that.

    If I was honest now, though, I’d say ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I hope I never have to find out and if I ever was in a place where I had to find out, I’d hope I’d find myself courageous and willing to die for the things I believe in.

    You see, that’s the thing. We want to be followers of Jesus and be like Jesus. But in reality, when we are following Jesus, we are more like… the followers of Jesus! We doubt, we fail, we promise great heroic things and then bottle it; sometimes we even betray him.

    There are some New Testament scholars who think Judas was part of a political movement known as the zealots. ‘Iscariot’ could possibly be related to the word ‘siccarri’, meaning dagger, as carried by these rebels. It was a thin-bladed weapon that could be pushed between the plates of armour on a Roman soldier if you stabbed him in the back. Judas Iscariot may literally mean Judas ‘the dagger-man’.

    There has been some attempt to unravel Judas’ motives and even to rehabilitate him somewhat. Did Judas misunderstand Jesus’ role as a messiah and anticipate a glorious revolt against the Romans, similar to the Maccabean revolt that ended Greek occupation two centuries before? When he ‘betrayed’ Jesus, was he trying to force Jesus into a confrontation with the authorities and thus precipitate a revolution? In the gospels it says that ‘Satan entered into’ Judas and we interpret this to mean he was overtaken by evil. But it might merely imply he was misguided – Satan is, after all, the ‘father of lies’, the ‘deceiver’. Did Judas get it horribly wrong? Well we don’t know, and there’s no way we could know.

    Thomas the doubter – we probably all know the story. Jesus has been killed, buried and now some of the disciples have seen him resurrected. Thomas doesn’t believe them – ‘unless I see the holes in his hands and in his side, I’m not going to believe you!’ I always get the sense that Thomas thinks the others have gone mad. He reminds them of the wounds that Jesus suffered. He knows Jesus is dead – killed by the Romans who don’t mess around when it comes to killing people. And very often we judge Thomas for that – we say ‘ooh, you know, Thomas, he didn’t believe, tut, tut.’ As if we would have believed!

    Before Easter, the disciples try to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem, but Jesus insists that he’s going. One disciple turns to the others and says ‘Let’s go with him so that we can die with him there.’ That slightly pessimistic disciple was Thomas. He knew the risks. When Jesus was taken off and killed, he must have thought ‘we knew this was going to happen’. The combination of grief, anger and self-recrimination is a huge mix of emotions. We’re told that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared, but we’re not told why. I think he couldn’t face them. It took him a while to rejoin them and then when he did they were obviously bonkers because they were saying Jesus was alive.

    Was Thomas bad for doubting the resurrection? I don’t think so. He was a realist, a pessimist and got annoyed with the other disciples. But when Jesus appeared and said ‘here’s my hands, here’s my side’, Thomas’ reaction is one of someone who desperately wanted to believe it was true. He falls to his knees and says ‘My Lord and my God’.

    And that brings us to Peter. He is probably the follower of Jesus we are all most like. Throughout the gospel stories he says the wrong things, he makes mistakes, he fails to grasp the point. And here, at what would later be called the Last Supper, he is passionately keen to say the right thing: “I’m ready to die for you!” But the thing is, while Peter has seen a lot on the road with Jesus – faced human enemies, driven out spiritual enemies, suffered hardship – he hasn’t been put in that position yet. It’s a ‘gun-to-your-head’ moment. Jesus says ‘Pete, you don’t know, before the night is out you’ll deny me three times.’

    I can imagine that would have cut Peter to the quick. Luke’s extra comment – that Satan has asked to sift Peter like wheat – is surely an indication of how Peter would feel after saying ‘I don’t know him’ and hearing the rooster crow. Jesus tries to protect him from what’s going to happen – ‘I’m praying for you; that your faith might not fail’. That’s an interesting promise. How often do we find our faith in God rocked because WE have failed? Can Jesus still love me? Can God still use me? I’m such a bad Christian, such a failure, who’d listen to a loser like me? If you feel like that, you’re getting sifted.

    I lived a double life for most of my teenage years. I knew that the whole church-God-Jesus thing was true and I enjoyed going to church. I knew I was a Christian. But in reality, while I knew that, I don’t think anyone in school would have been able to tell you. In school I was pretty much indistinguishable from the pagan majority. I saw what happened to people who were ‘religious’ and keen. So, I kept my head down. I went to the Christian Union and very occasionally told people I went to church – it was like confessing to a disease – but generally I was the same as everyone else, swearing, naughty, telling jokes that were a bit rude.

    That double life has always held me back, because the same pattern has occurred in places where I work. So I’d feel like a fraud ‘sharing my faith’ with someone who knows I laugh when they tell me rude jokes. Like most Christians, I feel like I’m caught in that ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If I don’t laugh, then I’m a boring, strait-laced Christian who ought to ‘loosen up’ and have more fun, for goodness sake! If I do laugh then I get hit with ‘huh, call yourself a Christian!’ You can’t win, can you? So, I often feel in this place where Peter finds himself – the ‘high priest’s courtyard experience’, which is one I guess most Christians can identify with.

    The interesting thing is that when the women go to the tomb on resurrection day they are told specifically to go back and tell Peter. He’s the only one who is named. Why so? Because the last time Jesus saw Peter before he was crucified, Peter left the courtyard crying bitterly when he knew he’d failed. And also because Peter still had an important part to play in Jesus’ plans. Now their talk on the beach is referred to ‘Peter’s restoration’ or ‘reinstatement’. They’re walking along the beach, something they must have done a thousand times before, they’re talking and Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. Peter feels hurt – what’s hurting? The guilt; the sense of shame; the feeling that he’s been in that situation before and said all the right things and then screwed up when the gun was put to his head.

    What does Jesus say? He tells Peter a couple of things. ‘You still have something vital to do for me. I need you to feed my sheep. You won’t fail again – next time you’re put on the spot you will die for me. We can start over, if only you will follow me.

    We may feel that Peter is the person we are most like, but it is our calling to follow Jesus and do the things that he did. So, it’s worth considering that this is an example of what we are often called to do. In the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis, one of the characters called Lucy Pevensie experiences betrayal. Lucy is in the magical world of Narnia, on an island ruled by a magician. She goes into the magician’s house in search of a spell and she finds another one, which allows her to see what her friend in the real world is doing. She sees her friend on a railway carriage with two older girls from school and with a shock she realise that they are talking about her. One of the girls asks Lucy’s friend if she’ll be “hanging around with that annoying Pevensie kid this term” and Lucy’s friend says “No.” Lucy is distraught and really angry. She can’t wait to get back to the real world and accuse her friend of betraying her. It takes the divine lion Aslan to point out to Lucy that she was spying on her friend, which is also wrong, and that her friend only said those things because she felt intimidated by the two older girls. Lucy has to learn not only forgiveness, but a willingness to accept her friend despite everything that was said.

    It would be easy for us to draw the conclusion that Jesus forgave Peter and everything was all right again and that’s how we should act towards people who let us down. But we have to go further. It’s not enough just to ‘forgive’; we also have to restore. That is difficult and frankly impossible if the other person shows no remorse. But where there is repentance, a genuine ‘sorry’, then if we are trying to emulate Jesus we have to allow that person back into our circle of trust. Sometimes we may feel that trusting someone who has let us down is a huge risk. By way of encouragement, risk-takers tend to lead more exciting lives, so don’t be put off by risk.

    The flipside is that when we let someone down, we have to allow them to forgive us. Often we do this with God. We let God down and then feel that there is no way back, that we can never amount to anything, that we’re frauds leading double lives and that no one will listen to us talking about God because we’re such rubbish Christians. But if we are given the chance, and I think we are all given the chance, then we should always take another shot at it. There’s an old saying that if you learn from defeat, then you don’t really lose.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, who isn’t perhaps the ideal person to look to for guidance in matters of faith, nevertheless came up with one very true statement: ‘whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger’. In the short term it might make you weaker, whether that’s a physical ailment like arthritis or cancer, or a spiritual problem like guilt or shame, or an emotional problem like addiction or depression. But in the long term, those debilitating problems, once treated, or forgiven, or healed, can ground you in life and give you the strength to keep on fighting.

    We are all given opportunities to speak up or deny. I believe purchasing the fairly traded alternative is a prophetic statement about how the world should be. I personally think as Christians we need to be committed to that. We recently asked everybody in this community to sign letters to send to Tony Blair urging him to drop the debts owed by third world nations. Why did we do that? Because we are called to speak up and speak out on the issues on God’s agenda. If you don’t believe that God is on the side of the poor and totally concerned about their well being, may I respectfully ask you to stop using your Bible as a doorstop or whatever else you’re using it for, and start reading it!

    I had a recent adrenalin rush in a big supermarket because I felt I had to ‘speak up’ about something. When I go to a shop with a big magazine section, I have a look at the soccer magazines. Now at this supermarket, they’re having a big redevelopment and the magazines have been moved. I was looking for the soccer section and found myself in the kids’ comic section. I turned around and there, at about eye-height for a child, in the same aisle, were the magazines loosely termed ‘men’s interest’. Just for a moment I felt a tiny spark of outrage. Opposite the kids’ comics were huge front cover pictures of just-about-naked women and sexual language and the sheer inappropriateness of this hit home.

    Our society is over-sexualised. There is an advert where a woman uses a certain plant-based shampoo and has a totally ‘organic’ experience, where she goes ‘ooh, yeah’ at such a high volume the couple next door think she’s in the throes of sexual passion. Not only is it untrue – I reckon you could be drinking the shampoo and it wouldn’t give you an orgasm – but it’s gratuitous use of sex to sell something. There is a car advert where you see more bottoms than car, to the song ‘I see you baby, shaking that ass’. Do you see the link between that and a nine-year old girl in a deprived estate in our home city having a baby within the past month? Do you think we should occasionally speak up about the sexualisation of everything and about how far from God’s intention the obsession with self-gratification is?

    So, heart pounding, I went up to the supermarket’s customer service desk, thinking, ‘Oh man, they’re going to think I’m some sort of crank.’ But it was weird. I said that I thought it was inappropriate to have kids’ comics opposite magazines like that. The woman I was talking to looked like she had attended the school of hard knocks. In fact, she could have tutored there. She looked pretty formidable. But as I spoke, she suddenly, and unexpectedly smiled. Not only did she agree with what I was saying, but she asked me to write it all down on one of the little comment cards (‘here, use my good pen’) and then she went off and personally handed it to the duty manager.

    A couple of days later I went into that supermarket and the kids’ comics had been swapped with the TV listings magazines.

    Before you think – ‘Jon, you’re a great moral campaigner and an inspiration to us all’ (I know you’re thinking it), let me just say this: What it brought home to me was all the times I haven’t spoken up.

    That’s the choice we have every day. We can deny it or risk it. The thing is if we risk it, we may find ourselves taking the lead. We may find that people want to hear what we have to say. We may find that people respond by saying “I’m glad you mentioned it and you’re right!” Too often we find ourselves worried about how people will react. If it’s not our own feelings of worthlessness we have to get over, it’s the fear factor, the fear of being rejected and so we deny the God-promptings, we fail to stand up for what we know is right, we decide not to talk about Jesus, not to pray with someone. We say, like Peter, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Easter is a day about risk. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene prayed for another way out. It was a risk. In his human-ness he didn’t know the ending. We often think that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and the eventual glorious outcome and so went along with it passively. But his anguish in Gethsemene shows he couldn’t be sure – if he had been sure it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. He didn’t know what would happen to his disciples after he’d gone, so he prayed for their protection. He told Peter he’d pray for him, that his faith would not fail.

    Peter’s bold words failed. He failed to live up to his own promises, his own expectations of himself, but his faith didn’t fail. After Jesus is raised from the dead, Peter leaps out of the boat to get to shore ahead of the others. He says ‘Lord you know all things’. He hears Jesus repeat those words that started this whole adventure and he follows him even though Jesus tells him the ending in advance. He has been in that high priest’s courtyard and now he knows how he will act in that position if he’s put in that position again.

    Those of us who feel that we have failed and that we have let Jesus down, despite all our bold words beforehand, need to hear Jesus’ call again. We have to believe that all the screw-ups have been taken away by Jesus’ death; that we’ve been forgiven and that he wants to entrust us with his Kingdom message again. As we celebrate the glory of resurrection day, we have a choice, because despite all the times we haven’t lived up to our promises, Jesus says:

    You still have something vital to do for me. Don’t worry about failing again. We can start over. Follow me.

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